The vehicular situation in post- WWII USSR is an ironically accurate representation of the way Soviet society functioned under Stalinism. Before the war, cars were visible in some cities but were not common in Soviet society. After the war, Stalin made some concessions, and allowed two new models of cars to be manufactured. “Oh joy!” thought Soviet citizens, “we’ve done our time in the war effort, we’ve passed the inspections of the Great Purges, we’ve put up with occupation, exploitation, and famine, and now look! Our hard work has brought us new cars!” Unfortunately, as per usual with Stalin, this was not the case.
The new cars went for between 9,000 and 16,000 rubles each; an exorbitant price for the average worker for whom the regime theoretically should have served. The average worker at this time made only 600 rubles per month, and this knocked the possibility of owning a car straight out of the ballpark for the majority of comrades. And if the price of the car didn’t crush every last hope the average worker had of owning his own car, then the supply of cars certainly finished off that foolish optimism- only 6,000 were produced in 1946 and only a few thousand more in 1947, so through a trade union the waiting list to get one of these cars was approximately 6 years. This system of car manufacturing and distribution provides a pretty accurate example of what life under Stalin was like for the average “comrade”. Communism in theory ought to have sought to improve the life of these “average workers”. However, under Stalin, the peasants and average workers expended all the effort and the elites in Moscow reaped all the rewards. As it was with collective grain agriculture, so it was with car factories.
In another sense, these “concessions” Stalin made in allowing the manufacturing of two new car models is equally reminiscent of Stalin’s political strategy- make just enough concessions to appease the people and keep them hopeful that change for their betterment is just around the corner, and then sort of silently withdraw the concessions. During WWII Stalin relaxed his restraint over literary and theatrical productions, and even went so far as to have agents go out to the countryside and spread rumors that as soon as the threat of Nazi Germany was defeated, Stalin planned to decollectivize agriculture. This rallied peasant, worker, and intelligentsia morales around Stalin with the glimmer of hope of liberalization to come. In this same way, Stalin raised hopes about the prospect of a proletariat car, but, unsurprisingly, only the elite were to benefit from the concessions.
Going even further, the system of car production itself is eerily representative of the Stalinist Soviet Union system of production as a whole. While these two proletariat cars were being painstakingly manufactured and minimally distributed to wealthy workers throughout the country, Moscow’s ironically named “Stalin Factory” was producing a luxury car. This car metaphorically was the Soviet Union. It was composed of parts from all over the nation, just as the Soviet Union was comprised of various different cultures, ethnicities, and nations all held together by the powers that be, in Moscow. Labor to support the continuation of this car came from the average workers and those in labor camps throughout the Union, although they would never see the product of their toils. The luxury car was then distributed among different important cities; Moscow, ever the favorite, kept 38, Kiev received 7, Leningrad 3, and six other cities got 4 each.
One final similarity between Soviet car production and the Stalinist system lies in the production in 1947 of an armored version of the luxury car made in Moscow. It was built like a tank, weighing 7 tons and requiring special wheels to handle its steel-laden weight. The majority of these cars were discreetly sent straight to the Kremlin, and Stalin reportedly had 5 for his own personal use. This is a great example of the paranoia that was so central to Stalin’s regime- he alone required more armored vehicles than the amount of luxury cars given to whole cities! This paranoia that caused Stalin to believe he needed a different armored car for each day of the week was the same paranoia that drove him to purge out his greatest supporters regularly. It is interesting to me that something so mundane as car manufacturing can be used as a lens to view the greater consistencies in the contemporary Stalinist political system.
Information regarding car manufacturing and distribution: http://www.soviethistory.org/index.php?page=subject&SubjectID=1947cars&Year=1947&navi=byYear
Information regarding concessions Stalin made during WWII: Freeze, Gregory L. Russia a History. Chapter 12 (391-392).